If your goal is a long and happy life, then you might have to start looking at what you put on your plate. Longevity, or how many years you live, is increasing thanks to modern medicine and a better understanding of how lifestyle factors can influence health.
It’s estimated that anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of your longevity is determined by genetics, according to February 2022 research in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences.
That leaves a lot of room for you to potentially increase your years lived simply by altering your lifestyle choices — and looking to the Blue Zones may be a good place to start.
What’s the Blue Zones Diet?
In 2004, with a collaboration between National Geographic and the National Institute on Aging, an author named Dan Buettner set out to find the secret to living longer.
The team found that there were five distinct places in the world that had the largest number of centenarians, or people who lived to be 100. They also found these locations to have lower numbers of chronic diseases, like heart disease, type 2 diabetes and even dementia.
They named these areas the Blue Zones, and they include:
- Okinawa, Japan
- Sardinia, Italy
- Nicoya, Costa Rica
- Ikaria, Greece
- Loma Linda, California
These five locations were then deemed to be the healthiest places to live, so naturally, they sought to find out why.
Anthropologists, epidemiologists and many researchers traveled to the Blue Zones to find out what they had in common and they came up with some common themes between all of these places that might contribute to this longevity phenomenon:
- Natural movement each day
- Have purpose in life
- Find ways to relieve stress
- Stop eating before you’re full and eat your largest meal in the middle of the day
- Eat a plant-forward diet
- Limit your alcohol intake
- Belong to a faith-based community
- Value family and keep them close
- Maintain healthy social circles
For example, the Blue Zone of Loma Linda, CA is largely a Seventh Day Adventist community and they follow a vegetarian diet. They’re also the only Blue Zone that does not drink alcohol at all, per their religion.
It’s clear that it takes more than a nutritious diet to reach the age of 100, but the diet in all the Blue Zones have one commonality: They’re largely plant-based.
Eating more veggies doesn’t guarantee you’ll live longer, but the high amounts of antioxidants, fiber and minimally processed food in plant-based diets are linked to a lower risk of chronic disease.
The Blue Zones diet focuses on plant foods, with most folks eating meat only five times per month (or about once per week), according to September-October 2016 research in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine.
The Blue Zones diet can be best described as a flexitarian diet or a Mediterranean diet pattern. It’s a largely plant-focused diet, with moderate amounts of dairy, eggs, fish and whole grains.
Feel free to eat multiple servings of these foods each day:
- Fruits: Apples, berries, citrus, melons, pomegranates, stone fruit and avocados are just some examples. Eat several whole fruits each day.
- Vegetables: Leafy greens, all squash varieties, fennel, tomatoes, peppers, onions, cucumbers. Make vegetables half of each meal.
- Legumes: Chickpeas, black beans, pinto beans, white beans, kidney beans, all lentil varieties. Eat one cup of legumes daily.
- Olive oil: Replace butter or other oils with olive oil.
- Nuts or nut butters: Almonds, pistachios, peanuts, walnuts. Eat one to two handfuls each day. If choosing a nut butter, avoid those with added sugars.
- Herbs, spices, and vinegars: Use these as your flavorings and seasonings for daily dishes.
- Coffee and tea: These can be enjoyed daily and are a staple in the Blue Zones diet.
- Water: Make water your main drink of choice to stay hydrated. Drink depending on your activity level, so more if you’re active.
Foods to Eat in Moderation
You’ll want to eat these foods once a day or a few times a week:
- Grains: Sourdough or whole-grain bread
- Fish: Tuna, salmon, cod, halibut, tilapia
- Whole eggs (don’t toss that yolk!)
- Dairy: Greek yogurt, milk, feta cheese, parmesan cheese
- Wine: With the exception of alcohol abstinence for religious reasons, alcohol intake in the Blue Zones is moderate, with the recommendation of one to two glasses per day.
You’ll want to limit these foods to once a week or a few times a month:
- Meat: Pork, beef
- Poultry: Chicken, turkey
- Sweets: Sweets like cakes, pies, cookies and pastries are thought of as celebratory foods. Added sugars should be limited to the American Heart Association’s recommendation of no more than 6 to 9 teaspoons (24 to 36 grams) per day.
There are no hard-and-fast rules on avoiding foods, but generally, foods that are not eaten regularly in Blue Zones include:
- Sugar-sweetened beverages: Sodas, sweetened tea, sugary coffee drinks and other drinks with high amounts of added sugar should be avoided whenever possible.
- Ultra-processed foods: Frozen pizzas, chips, crackers and processed meats are not a part of the diet in the Blue Zones.
How to Meal Plan for a Blue Zones Diet
A hallmark of the Blue Zones diet is eating minimally processed meals — that means you’re cooking from home more. If this is new for you, then gradually ease into this: You can start by cooking at home one more night a week.
If you’re already cooking at home, here are some tips to help you plan for eating Blue Zones-style:
- Because the bulk of the diet is made of plant foods, make sure to fill at least half your plate with vegetables of all kinds. It’s also recommended that you eat legumes daily, along with a serving of nuts and multiple servings of fruit.
- Fill in the rest of your plate with whole grains, fish, eggs or dairy for most days of the week.
- Eat fruit daily or simply make it your dessert.
- Stock your pantry with grains (such as quinoa, millet and farro) as well as olive oil, spices and legumes.
- Keep frozen fruit and vegetables in the freezer when you run out of fresh. Add frozen spinach, corn, or peas to soups, stews or pasta dishes.
Your 7-Day Blue Zones Meal Plan
Try this week-long meal plan to kickstart your Blue Zones diet. You’ve got three meals a day plus snacks to choose from:
You can choose two to three snacks daily:
- Fresh fruit
- Handful of nuts
- Greek yogurt
- Vegetable sticks with hummus or guacamole
- Roasted chickpeas
- Nut butter and fruit
Things to Keep in Mind With the Blue Zones Diet
- Don’t aim for perfection: You probably won’t be able to mimic the exact diet of those who live in Blue Zones — and that’s OK. Don’t strive to perfect this diet — you’ll still see health benefits by increasing the number of plant foods in your diet.
- Change happens slowly: If you’re not currently eating a lot of plant-based meals or cooking at home often, this will be a change for you. Take it slow to keep stress to a minimum and enjoy eating healthier.
- Watch for nutrient deficiencies: When switching to a more plant-based diet, it may be possible to miss out on certain nutrients if you’re not careful. Make sure you’re getting enough iron (legumes, eggs, meat), calcium (dairy, fortified foods, tofu), vitamin D (fortified foods, salmon, eggs) and vitamin B12 (meat, eggs, dairy). Be especially mindful of the needs of children and older adults. Talk to your doctor or registered dietitian if you have nutrient concerns when switching up your diet.